The Secret of Daddy's Fever
I could hear my little brother J. D. off down behind the corncrib practicing on his guitar. Soon as Daddy had given us boys our piece of the cotton money, J. D. had dragged out the Sears, Roebuck wish book and sent off his twelve dollars. Three weeks later the guitar arrived in a big pasteboard box, along with a "Learn to Play Guitar" handbook. It was a cheap-looking instrument: the body was painted a gaudy red and the neck bent upward so that the strings stood up about a half inch off the fret board. But as far as J. D. was concerned it was good as any triple-ought Martin ever built.
"I don't aim to waste my life workin' red clay," J. D. said. "I'm goin' to learn to play and sing, maybe even get on the Grand Ole Opry someday."
Listening to J. D. plunk around and try to fit his fingers to the diagrams in his chord book, I suspected that dream might well be misplaced. We all gathered around the old Philco radio on Saturday nights and listened to Uncle Dave Macon and Roy Acuff and the rest of those fellows over to the east in Nashville. From what I could judge J. D. had a ways to go before he caught up with them in the music department.
Late fall of the year should have been a happy time for us, what with the crops all in and the bills paid off, and seed money for next spring's planting put aside. But it wasn't. We always dreaded seeing that last row of cotton go into our long pick sacks, that last ear of corn shucked down and tossed in the crib. For we knew that when it was all done and laid by, Daddy would come down with the "fever" again.
That's what Papa called it. Papa was Daddy's daddy and he looked older than the slate rock banks down at Britt's Landing. He was a dried up little man, so skinny at the waist that his gallowses held his pants out in a big circle all the way around his body. You could have stuck Mama's big thick Bible in there anywhere and it would have dropped right through. Papa was ninety-seven years old and near about stone deaf. All he did was sit on the front porch in an old rocking chair and feed himself bits of loose-leaf chewing tobacco from the supply he kept in his bib overall pocket.
"Some fellers go plumb haywire in the springtime," Papa said in reference to his son's strange behavior, his old voice hoarse and crackly. "Hershel gets touched with the fever in the fall. I seen it 'fore, men get like a wall-eyed cow when that fever sets in on 'em!"
I went on around behind the corncrib. J. D. was sitting with his back propped against the rough plank wall. His chord book was spread open before him on the ground and he was worrying over it.
"Heard you off down here plunkin'," I said, dropping to the ground and taking a seat. "Thought I'd come down here and see how you're doing."
"I hope you ain't come down here to make light of me," he said. "I'm having trouble aplenty with this here G-7 chord." He used his right hand to put the fingers of his left in a certain position on the neck of the guitar. "Don't think I'll ever be able to do this!"
"Well, everybody had to learn some time or another," I said. "Those boys at the Grand Ole Opry wasn't born knowin' how to pick I don't reckon."
J. D. was three years younger than I was and he was Mama's pet. He'd had a touch of the polio when he was four and while he got over it with no ill effects, Mama always favored him.
"Daddy gone yet?" he asked, trying once again to get his fingers in the right spots.
"No yet, but he's getting mighty restless. I woke up at three this mornin' and he was standing out in the backyard. It won't be long now."
"Yeah, I reckon you're right," said J. D.
Two days later Daddy proved me right. He got up at daybreak that Saturday morning and commenced to get ready to leave.
"I want you to press my good suit," he said to Mama, as she stood over the wood-fired stove cooking breakfast. She flipped the sausage in the old black iron skillet and looked back over her shoulder. Her face was set in stone.
"I'll get your clothes ready when I'm finished up with breakfast, Hershel," she replied coolly.
"Well, see that you do, woman!" said Daddy.
Daddy had one good suit of clothes to his name. It was reserved for the occasional funeral when one of his relatives or neighbors died, and for those rare occasions when he went to church with Mama. Mama went to the Spring Hill Primitive Baptist Church every Sunday without fail, winter or summer, rain or shine. Daddy seemed to have his own ideas on religion and they didn't include any more church going than was necessary.
Daddy's good suit was dark blue worsted with a thin chalk stripe. When he put it on freshly pressed and wore his pearl gray fedora and bluchers shined so that you could see yourself in the toes he looked passable; probably too passable far as Mama was concerned.
Breakfast seem to go down hard that morning. Mama's biscuits, usually so light and airy, felt like brick bats going down my throat. Daddy didn't eat; he just had a cup of coffee and fidgeted around like a man with a powerful problem on his mind. Mama's face remained bleak and set as she dished up the food and scurried around in the kitchen. J. D. and I both ate silently, glancing at one another occasionally and then at Daddy. Even old Papa, who was prone to blurting out something at the strangest times, was less animated than usual as he consumed his four hard-fried eggs--the old man might look like a dried up bird but he could eat with the best of them.
Daddy pulled out about nine that morning. He came into the parlor where Mama was dusting, all decked out in his good clothes and stood there shifting back and forth awkwardly for a few moments, the way a young boy does when he has to tell his mama that he's just broke her favorite flower vase. Daddy had that same pained look etched on his sun-lined face.
"I'll be goin' now, Bertha," he said. "Reckon I'll be back in a week or two."
Mama turned around from the mantle she'd been dusting, letting her dust rag drop to her side. Her jaw was clenched, her mouth firm. Only her eyes revealed the sadness she felt.
"Don't go, Hershel," she said softly.
Daddy cleared his throat. He ran his hand up and nervously tugged at the knot in his tie.
"I got to, woman, don't make it no worse than it is," he said hoarsely.
"What if something happens here, what if Papa passes or one of the boys gets hurt? We won't have no way to let you know."
"I'll know," he said, and with that turned and walked out the front door. Mama stood stock still until we heard the old pickup engine fire up, then she closed her eyes for one brief moment before going back to her dusting.
I walked out onto the front porch and stood watching the old black Ford all the way down the bottom, speeding along with a dust plume rising in its wake. And then it crossed the bridge at Cane Creek and topped the rise, and was gone from my view.
It was the last time I ever saw my Daddy.
As I sit here now and remember, it's still hard to believe things turned out the way they did. Forty-three years have passed since that day--I am now twenty years older than my Daddy was the day he died--and yet time has not dulled the edge of those few days. They are as real to me now as they were then, maybe even more so.
J. D. I think of him a lot these days. My little brother would be 58 now if fate hadn't found him in that cold Belgium field. I hope he was still dreaming of being on the Grand Old Opry someday when that German sniper's bullet stopped all his thoughts forever.
But forgive me for encroaching on the story. There is more to tell, as you will see.
We went on about our business after Daddy left that day, there was nothing else to do. Mama cooked and cleaned and gathered eggs as if nothing was amiss. J. D. fiddled around with his guitar and dreamed of becoming a big hillbilly music star. Papa sat on the front porch in his creaky old rocker, bundled up against the chill of fall, and fed himself chewing tobacco.
I mostly worried. I couldn't get the image of that old Model-A pickup out of my mind, speeding along down the dusty bottom road and on toward - what? What did Daddy do, what had he been doing these past twelve years when he left home every fall for a week or more?
It had to be a woman. And yet, while this was the only conclusion I could come to, the only think I could think of that would drag a man away from his family on such a regular basis and send him off on some secret mission, it was still next to impossible for me to believe.
As I said before, Daddy didn't go to church much but he had his own sense of morality. As far as I knew he'd never touched a drop of liquor in his life and he had no time for those who did. He hated gossip with a passion and had more than one falling out with his sister, Birdie Mae because of it. Birdie Mae was the biggest gossip in Clayborne County and maybe the whole state of Tennessee. I never once heard Daddy speak poorly of anyone, in fact Daddy wasn't much of a talker period. He was shy and backward even with his own family, and when he said something to you it was because it needed to be said. I don't think Daddy ever carried on a real conversation in his life.
While Daddy wasn't the homeliest man in our neck of the woods, he didn't have the kind of looks you were apt to see on the movie screen over at the Bijou in Jackson on Saturday night. He was tall and gawky, with big rough work hands and ears that stuck out from his head like the handles on Mama's old blue dappled water pitcher. His hair was jet black--blacker than a banker's heart, Mama said more than once--and he kept it peeled up the sides to the crown so that the skin showed through the stubble. His nose was long and equine, a characteristic shared by all the men in the Charters family as far as I could tell, and his chin was less than substantial, another family trait.
It was the eyes you noticed most when you looked at Daddy. They were gray as fresh dug ball clay sprinkled with blue flecks and they seemed to jump right out of his face. I had seen Daddy standing in the field, slump-shouldered and angular against the fall of the land, looking off toward the edge of the universe like he was searching for something too far away to ever be seen by a mortal man.
The days rubbed against one another until they faded away, as days tend to do. The wind shifted into the north on Tuesday night and when I awoke Wednesday morning the first sound I heard was the loud clatter of heavy, cold rain on the tin roof. Lying there deep in my feather bed, warm and cozy under a brace of patchwork quilts, I felt oddly at easy; so relaxed, in fact, that Mama had to call me the second time to breakfast, something unheard of in our house.
The leaden sky poured steadily for two days and old Papa almost drove us all over the brink of sanity. He had been forced to move his rocker in by the weather and he sat bundled up in front of the wood stove, chewing tobacco and spitting brown jets of juice into a pasteboard box filled with ashes Mama put there for such a disgusting purpose. He almost talked our ears off.
"Winter of sixty-six, it was, rained near about all winter, I was a sixteen year old boy and, naw, naw, it was sixty-seven or sixty-eight, my leg had done healed up from where it was hurt at Shiloh, them gadblame Yankee sumbitches! Anyhows, I was snakin' logs over in the bottom for fifty cents a day, daylight til dark behind a team of the purtiest Morgan horse you ever did lay a eye on, naw, naw, wait a minute now, it wasn't them Morgans, it was a pair of brindle mules old man Blodgins bought off'n a feller up Murray, Kentucky. Old man Petey Wrightwood had them Morgans and one of them sorry Chester boys stole 'em and ended up gettin' shot by Petey's boy, Lester. Lester stepped on a nail and died of the lockjaws, leastways that's what they called it. Anyway, we snaked logs all winter in the pourin' cold rain and snow for fifty cents a day and Elwood Simmons got the newmony and died and we had to bury him three times 'cause his damn box kept floatin' up outta the ground!"
And on and on he went, telling us stories he had told so many times they were forever emblazoned like rough hatchet cuts in the walls of our minds.
Silence greeted my ears when I woke up Friday. The rain had stopped sometime during the night. I said a small prayer of thanks; one more day of Papa's ranting and I would have been ready for a room at Western State Hospital. Little did I know as I sat over my breakfast that morning that the day would become one destined to be forever near in my memory.
I was in back of the house moving dry firewood up from the woodshed to the back porch when I heard the sound. On a still day you could hear the sound of a car's engine when it turned off the state highway and onto the bottom road, a distance of almost a mile.
It was a typical fall day following a late fall rain; still and cold and gray. Red clay mud stuck to the soles of my brogans and my labored breath sprang white and alive before my face. I froze in mid stride as the sound reached my ears, like the sound of some insect far away in the night. I knew it was not the sound of Daddy's truck that I heard.
J. D. was standing on the front porch as I came around the corner of the house, his right hand fanned out over his eyes as he gazed down toward Cane Creek.
"Reckon that's Daddy?" he asked, looking first at me and then back down toward the bottom.
"It ain't Daddy's truck," I said.
"Maybe it's somebody goin' down to the Mortons."
I recognized the car as it came over the rise and dropped down onto the flats just south of the creek bridge. It was the old Chevrolet Sheriff Jim Clayborne drove on his official business and I could see the white markings on the door long before I could make out what it said.
"Looks like it's Sheriff Clayborne," I said to J. D. I hoped he wouldn't turn up the lane toward out house when he got to it. He did. "Go get Mama," I said to J. D.
The mud-splattered Chevrolet skidded to a stop in the front yard and Sheriff Clayborne got out. He was a talk hulk of a man with a big florid face caused by years of heavy drinking. He wore an old broken down fedora hat upon his head and a big shiny star glinted from the front of his denim work coat.
"Hidy, Lester," he said. He worked the stub of a burnt out cigar around in his teeth and looked uncomfortable. "I think you'd better go get your mama if'n she's here."
"She's here, Sheriff. J. D. 's gone in to get her now."
Mama came out on the front porch and the sheriff stepped up there himself. He had the hangdog look of a man come bearing bad news.
"Hidy do, Miz Charters," he said.
"Good day, Sheriff," Mama said, wiping her hands nervously on her old blue apron.
"Lord knows I hate to have to bring news like this," the sheriff said. He took off the old hat and crushed the brim around in his huge hands.
"Something has happened to Hershel, ain't it?" Mama asked.
"Yessum," the sheriff answered.
"Is he dead?"
The sheriff swallowed self-consciously before answering, then said, "Yessum, I'm might afraid he is."
In the years since that day I've heard noises that chilled my bones many times, sounds made by dying men on Iwo Jima and Tarawa and Saipan. I've seen men forced to look into the hole of hell and face a death they couldn't have imagined in their worst nightmare. But I've never heard a sound so awful as the one my mama made that morning.
J. D. and I managed to get Mama off the porch and onto her bed. The sheriff stood looking awkward, and Papa sat by the stove and spit and wondered what all the commotion was about.
"You stay here with Mama, I'm going to ride in with the sheriff," I told J. D. His eyes had begun to mist up. Mama lay on the bed and sobbed quietly into the pillow.
On the way to town the sheriff told me what little he knew about Daddy's death. Daddy had been killed just after midnight about five miles north of town when his pickup skidded on the wet blacktop and hit an oncoming truck.
"The gas tank blowed up," the sheriff said. "He was burnt plumb up, Lester, but I don't think he suffered none."
Daddy was headed toward home, I supposed. But from where, from what?
We got through those next few days as people do at such times, pulling strength from one another. The funeral took place Sunday afternoon; I was ready for it to be over with by then. We sat on the hard oak pews in the front of Spring Hill Primitive Baptist Church for almost two hours, while old Brother Stockard banged on his pulpit and preached a hellfire and brimstone funeral. Mama sat beside me, her face rigid with some kind of emotion I didn't know. J. D. kept putting his fingers to his eyes in a vain effort to hold the tears inside. Old Papa gazed back and forth around the church house, look for all the world like a shriveled and aged bird.
I just sat there. I had come to the sorry realization in the past few days that I really didn't know my daddy well enough to grieve for him.
After all the mournful hymns were sung, Daddy was laid to rest beneath the red clay on the little knoll out behind the church, put away for all eternity with his secret locked tight inside his dead mind. We didn't get to see him for that final time before the burial like we would have, because of the fire.
Old Papa died in 1942 and we buried him on the knoll beside his wife and son. War was upon the face of the world then and I ended up in the Marine Corps. I fought across the Pacific and was wounded going ashore on Iwo in February of 1944. That was the end of the war for me. J. D. was killed in Europe the next year and Mama died in l949. I never saw her smile again after the day Daddy died.
I spent some time after the war trying to find out about where Daddy was before he died. I took a picture of him as far north as Cairo, Illinois and south to Corinth, Mississippi. I went to Jackson and Nashville and everywhere in between. I never met a person who could recall ever seeing him.
I never did discover the secret of Daddy's fever. Maybe, in the long run, that's just as well.